“Many U.S. farmers have turned to cover crops as part of their strategy to improve soil health while reducing input costs and maintaining yields,” reports Mike Smith, who managed the national survey for the nonprofit organization Conservation Technology Information Center.
Survey participants averaged 465 acres in cover crops in 2019, an increase of 38% in four years. The USDA Census of Agriculture found a 50% increase in cover crop acreage during the five-year period between 2012 and 2017.
“Farmers are using cover crops for a variety of reasons, and many have tried new approaches to cover cropping,” Smith says. “This year’s survey also indicated that some of the concerns that many growers have had about the effects of cover crops on planting dates in a wet year turned out not to be true. In fact, in many cases, cover crops helped farmers plant earlier in the very wet spring of 2019.”
Despite the crippling rainfall that significantly delayed planting across much of the country in 2019, more than 90% of farmers participating in the survey reported that cover crops allowed them to plant earlier or at the same time as fields without cover crops. Among those who had “planted green,” seeding cash crops into growing cover crops, 54% said the practice helped them plant earlier than on other fields.
These findings are among several new insights from the 2019-20 National Cover Crop Survey, conducted by CTIC with financial support from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program and the American Seed Trade Association. These organizations have worked together on several past national cover crop surveys, with the first survey dating back to 2012.
The 2019-20 survey, which includes perspectives from 1,172 farmers representing every state, is the first by SARE, CTIC and ASTA to include detailed exploration of planting green — a tactic employed by 52% of the respondents — as well as crop insurance use among cover croppers and the impact of cover crops on the profitability of horticultural operations.
According to Rob Myers, regional director of Extension programs for North Central SARE, “Many farmers are finding that cover crops improve the resiliency of their soil, and the longer they use cover crops, the greater the yield increases and cost savings that are reported by producers.”
The survey shows a majority of farmers are buying cover crop seed from cover crop seed companies and retailers.
“We are pleased to see farmers appreciate the expertise of cover crop seed companies, with 46% saying they buy from them and another 42% buying from retailers,” says Jane DeMarchi with ASTA. “Professionally produced cover crop seed is grown for seed from the start and has been selected, harvested, cleaned and tested for performance. The study shows farmers are using a range of cover crop seed and mixes to address their individual needs, with 46% paying $15 or under per acre.”
Of the 1,172 farmers who provided responses in the 2019-20 survey, 81% were commodity producers (corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton), and 19% categorized themselves as horticultural producers.
Following are some highlights from the survey.
Higher yields, lower costs
The previous five national cover crop surveys sponsored by SARE, CTIC and ASTA all reported yield boosts from cover crops, most notably in the drought year of 2012 — soybean yields were 11.6% improved following cover crops, and corn yields were 9.6% better.
In 2019, when wet early conditions prevailed across much of the corn and soybean regions, yield gains were more modest but still statistically significant. Following the use of cover crops, soybean yields improved 5% and corn yields increased 2% on average, while spring wheat yields improved 2.6%.
Many farmers reported economic benefits from cover crops beyond yield improvements. Of farmers growing corn, soybeans, spring wheat or cotton, the following percent had savings on production costs with fertilizers and/or herbicides:
- Soybeans: 41% saved on herbicide costs and 41% on fertilizer costs
- Corn: 39% saved on herbicide costs and 49% on fertilizer costs
- Spring wheat: 32% saved on herbicide costs and 43% on fertilizer costs
- Cotton: 71% saved on herbicide costs and 53% on fertilizer costs
While cover crop seed purchase and planting do represent an extra cost for farmers, most are finding ways to economize on cover crop seed costs. Whereas earlier surveys from 2012 and 2013 reported on a median cover crop seed cost of $25 per acre, most farmers reported paying less in 2019.
Of the responding farmers, 16% paid only $6 $10 per acre for cover crop seed, 27% paid $11 to $15 per acre, 20% paid $16 to $20 per acre, and 14% paid $21 to $25 per acre. Only about one-fourth paid $26 or more per acre, according to the report.
Planting green refers to planting a cash crop such as corn, soybeans or cotton into a still-living cover crop, and then terminating it soon after with herbicides, a roller-crimper or other methods. In this year’s survey, 52% of farmers planted green into cover crops on at least some of their fields. In the 2016-17 report, 39% of respondents had planted green.
Of the farmers planting green:
- 71% reported better weed control
- 68% reported better soil moisture management, which is particularly valuable during a wet spring
The majority of farmers said levels of early-season diseases, slugs and voles — often feared as the potential downsides of planting green into cover crops — were about the same or better after planting green into cover crops. Though many farmers noted they did not have problems with voles, several pointed out challenges with cutworms when planting green.
The top two reasons farmers plant cover crops:
- Most use cover crops to improve soil structure or soil health.
- Many plant cover crops to improve weed management.
The majority of farmers responding to the survey said they plant cereal rye as a cover crop. Radishes are the second most popular cover crop. But when they are using a mix, radishes are the No. 1 most planted cover crop, followed closely by a rye mix. Half of respondents say they are increasing the number of crops in their cover crop mix.
For the full survey report, including past years’ survey reports, visit sare.org/covercropsurvey.